Thursday, May 11, 2006

Guy from HUD walks into a room...

I began today with another pleasurable visit to my "reader line," the voicemail service that keeps me in touch with the dissatisfied customer. The first fella in the queue said: "I've never read anything that you've ever said positive about our president or about our country or about anything. Everything has been extremely negative...I feel sorry for you."

Well, what can I say? I suppose I could burst into song, like Maria in The Sound of Music, and croon about "My Favorite Things," all of which can be found on my blog profile, anyway. But this job is about watching the folks in power and exercising due vigiliance. And today, for instance, it would be hard to wax positive about President Bush's man at HUD, Alphonso Jackson.

You ask, who's Alphonso Jackson? He's secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And even though much of the media (including my own newspaper) has either overlooked or ignored the Jackson saga that has unfolded in recent days, it's worth recounting if only for its entertainment value.

Jackson has been caught in a messy and embarrassing situation, and here is his best defense:
I am a liar.

This is no exaggeration. But let's start from the beginning:
On April 28, Jackson delivered a speech in Dallas to the Real Estate Executive Council, a national consortium of minority-owned real estate agencies. During that speech, he said that he didn't want to award federal money to anyone who didn't like President Bush.

And - as reported in the Dallas Business Journal - he related this detailed, specific anecdote about one prospective minority contractor:

"(This contractor) had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years. He made a heck of a proposal and was on the list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect - the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell (me).'"

Jackson then told his Dallas audience, "He didn't get the contract. Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Well, first of all, such conduct on Jackson's part -- denying a contract because the contractor lacked political loyalty to the leader -- would appear to be a violation of the impartiality requirements in federal law, specifically 48 CFR 3.101-1:
"Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach and, except as authorized by statute or regulation, with complete impartiality and with preferential treatment for none. Transactions relating to the expenditure of public funds require the highest degree of public trust and an impeccable standard of conduct."

But naturally, the saga got wierder once the spinners got to work.

Jackson's speech sparked an uproar on Capitol Hill, among Democrats who were concerned that the federal procurement process was being skewed by a GOP appointee on the basis of political loyalty. This in turn prompted a defiant defense of Jackson by a HUD flak, Dustee Tucker. She supplied fresh details to the Dallas journal on May 3, saying that the dispute concerned "an advertising contract with a minority publication," but that the rejected contractor had persisted in "trashing, in a very aggressive way" the president.

Again, that explanation raised questions about violations of federal law.
But then the explanation changed.

The new explanation, offered a couple days ago, goes like this: Jackson made the whole thing up.

As reported here and here, spokeswoman Tucker now says that the HUD secretary's story was "hypothetical," that, in reality, Jackson "did not actually meet with someone and turn down a contract. He's not part of the contracting process."
And yesterday, in the wake of a report that the HUD inspector general was examining the incident, Jackson stepped forward to say this: "I deeply regret the anecdotal remarks I made at a recent Texas small business forum and would like to reassure the public that all HUD contracts are awarded solely on a stringent merit-based process. During my tenure, no contract has ever been awarded, rejected, or rescinded due to the personal or political beliefs of the recipient."

How negative of me to ask these questions:
Can we believe with confidence that explanation number two -- that the story is untrue -- is really true?
Would Jackson have come forward to assert that he had lied to his audience if a furor had not ensued on Capitol Hill and in the HUD inspector general's office?
And if he really did make the whole thing up, why would he want to volunteer the notion --again, apparently illegal -- that Bush opponents are turned away if they ask for federal contracts?

Maybe, to quote Porter Goss, it's just "one of those mysteries."